If you enjoy drinking coffee you probably also enjoy trying different coffees. Whenever you decide to do that, though, how do you go about selecting what you’re going to sample next? One way to have some idea of what to expect from your next mystery purchase is to understand its roasting profile.
What Are Coffee Roasting Profiles?
When we talk about the roast profile of a given coffee, we are actually discussing the roasting process that the beans have undergone. To put it simply, a coffee roast profile is a summary of what was done to the raw beans that led to the coffee you might be considering to try.
Coffee roasters should constantly be experimenting with various ways to enhance the overall quality of their product. This means a lot of creativity, a willingness to fail, and a lot of note-taking. It takes discipline but no one will argue with the end result. Obviously, changes made throughout the roasting process will have some effect on the finished product, so let’s look at some of the key elements coffee roasters consider during this process.
Coffee’s Moisture Content and Moisture Loss
Different coffee beans and bean types will naturally have some moisture in them naturally. It’s important to measure and understand exactly how much of that moisture is present because the moisture content is one of the elements with the greatest impact on the roasting process. It can directly affect things like the coffee’s flavor, aroma, body, and even the brightness of the bean. Moisture loss is calculated by subtracting the coffee’s weight after roasting from its original weight before the process began. The difference is divided by the original starting weight to determine the moisture loss as a percentage.
Pro-Tip: For roasters, finding this percentage regularly is a quick and effective way to ensure the consistency of different batches over time.
Roast Degree and Coffee Color Change
Roast degree is another important variable in the roasting profile because it helps roasters measure the color - and as a result, the taste - beans will reach. Coffees that are lighter tend to be more acidic and maintain a bit more of the coffee’s own organic makeup. This is where you’re more likely to taste things like sweet or fruity finishes. Darker coffees generally have a more bitter taste and can be a bit smokier in flavor. These roasts are typically the ones that taste more like chocolate or other more complex essences. That’s because the longer the beans are exposed to heat, the more the original organic compounds break down. This makes them a bit less apparent to the palette.
Roasting Process Stages
This may seem obvious, but roasters should always measure the varying stages of the roasting process itself to best understand how each batch will turn out. Any differences from batch to batch can indicate a change in the way the beans are responding to the process and might help point out potential deficiencies or quality control issues before they become full-blown problems. Here are some of the most common elements roasters generally watch for:
- Ambient/Start Temperature: This is simply the temperature of the roaster before the beans are added. Think of it as the pre-heated oven reaching its desired mark. This number represents that temperature.
- Turning Point: When the beans are loaded into the roaster, the temperature of the roaster will drop pretty suddenly. That’s because the cooler beans absorb heat from the roaster. The turning point measures the temperature the roaster reaches before it begins to warm back to its desired level. Depending on the type of equipment a roaster is using, he/she might adjust the burners or energy settings to influence the velocity of the temperature change at this stage. This is important because re-heating too quickly can create the risk of scorching the beans.
- Pro-Tip: For roasters, it’s generally a good idea to measure the time it takes for the roaster to recover from its bottom-out temperature back to its desired level.
- Cracking: Because coffee beans do have natural moisture, sugars, and other chemical compounds, they usually make popping sounds once they reach a certain temperature. That’s because these internal elements are experiencing chemical reactions to the heat. When this first occurs, it’s called First Crack. At this stage, most roasters will begin pulling back on the heat being applied to ensure the beans don’t end up burnt.
- Even as the temperatures are reduced, the roaster is still extremely warm, so it’s perfectly normal to hear several “cracks” during the roasting process. Most roasters will also monitor how long each round of cracks lasts, as well as how much time passes between these rounds.
- Ending Temperature: Once the beans have cracked a roaster must monitor them to ensure they don’t get overdone. When the beans’ surface begins smoothening out, it’s usually a good indicator that it’s time to check on them. The best way to do that is to take out a couple of individual beans and crack them open to make sure that they’re a consistent color inside and out. If they are, it could be time to let them cool.
- Roasting Time: This one might sound like a no-brainer, but how long the beans are exposed to different stages of the roasting process will definitely influence their final form. Finding the right balance here is critical. For example, quicker roasts tend to yield more aromatic coffees but they also have a greater risk of burning the beans. Conversely, coffees that are roasted more slowly tend to be less acidic because the organic compounds within the bean are given more time to decompose.
Additional Considerations: While it may seem like we’re spilling valuable industry secrets, this is actually pretty high-level, introductory information. There’s a lot more that goes into coffee roasting than most people realize so we’re really only hitting the highlights here. Some other variables that many skilled roasters adjust to influence how their product tastes include the following:
- Batch Size (by either weight or volume)
- Drip-Style Coffee vs. Espresso
- Air Flow Adjustments to the Machine
- Gas/Energy Settings
- Drum Speed
- Time to Cool Before Packaging
As you can imagine, these elements will have a significant impact things like the taste, the pH balance or acidity, the smoothness or mouthfeel … of a coffee. A coffee bean’s natural essence will largely dictate its flavor, of course, but the roasting process can have a significant impact on how each sip actually tastes by the time it reaches your lips. That’s why coffee roasting profiles are so important to understand and consider when choosing coffees to try.
Common Roasting Profiles
The National Coffee Association has created this comprehensive list of roast profiles to help standardize the way roasters identify different coffees. Here is a simple rundown:
Light Roast Coffees
- Light City
- Half City
Medium Roast Coffees
Medium Dark Roast Coffee
- Full City
Dark Roast Coffees
- New Orleans
How to Choose Coffees Based on Roast Profiles
This classification system is a fair starting point, but it still doesn’t necessarily help you know what you’re buying before you try it. Let’s take a quick look at how these labels can help you make a great choice the next time you’re wanting to find a new coffee to try.
Light Roasts: Light roast coffees typically stay true to their original flavors. Since these beans aren’t roasted for quite so long, the original organic compounds and chemical makeup of the bean don’t have as much time to dissipate during the roasting process. The very lightest roasts will taste a bit like nuts, grains, or seeds. The slightly more deeply-colored light roast varieties will have hints of different fruits, spices, and even brown sugar.
Medium Roasts: Medium roast coffees still boast some of the original organic qualities of the beans but the flavors aren’t quite as obvious. With these roasts, the acidity levels tend to smooth over a bit, cutting through some of the original fruity or sweet tastes of light roasts. Medium roasts tend to bring to mind other flavors like caramel, honey, or roasted fruits. These tend to be the most popular roasts in the USA.
Medium Dark Roasts: Medium dark roast coffees have a bit more bitterness and start to introduce some of the more smoky flavors. They’re a little more oily and tend to pick up tastes more along the lines of vanilla, bourbon, or pipe tobacco. These coffees will usually leave a slightly bittersweet aftertaste.
Dark Roasts: Dark roast coffees can be a bit more robust but the flavor is often fairly bitter. As described above, the beans lose acidity the longer (darker) they’re roasted so a lot of the natural flavors of the beans can be lost entirely in many dark roasts. This yields itself to a more purely coffee taste with a lot of the defining characteristics dealing specifically with particular levels of roasting or doneness. For example, you might compare the flavors of dark coffees on a range from rye bread to cigar smoke to ash.
Pro-Tip: The dark roast descriptions may not sound too appealing but don’t let them sell these coffees short. Part of what makes dark roast coffee such a popular option is how delicious it can be when combined with other flavors, such as syrups or creams. Remember, espresso falls into this category so some of these coffees are the base to your favorite lattes, cappuccinos, and other delicious treats.
As you can see, there are a wealth of options when it comes to choosing delicious coffees. At the end of the day, there’s no single correct answer - it all comes down to finding what you like. Sample packs are one great way to do just that. We recommend checking out our Roasters Choice Subscription, a unique sampler in which we deliver some of our most popular organic, fair trade coffees and blends directly to your door at an interval you choose. Each pack will contain premium, painstakingly sourced coffees from places like Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Ethiopia, Papua New Guinea, Colombia, or the like.
Remember, we are a fourth wave coffee roaster with direct relationships with some of the best independent coffee farmers in the world. We source the very best coffees from around the globe and put them through a meticulously designed roasting process to create consistent, delicious roasting profiles that you will not find anywhere else. If you’re looking to try different coffees, there’s no better way to discover new flavors and better understand roasting profiles than to try new things. We can help!